The 3DS, the iPad, and the Future of Gaming

Nintendo launched its 3DS mobile gaming console in the U.S. on Sunday. While the device didn’t result in the kinds of mass stock outages and lines that the iPad 2 (s aapl) generated, by most accounts, it did pretty well. Nintendo claimed record pre-orders for the device and forecasted shipments of 4 million units through March 31. Recent analyst predictions estimate the 3DS will easily exceed week one sales of the company’s DS from 2004. But despite all that success, the company will never be able to take back the foothold Apple has gained in the gaming market.

The reason? As game developer Olly Farshi so aptly put it when we were discussing the 3DS’ merits, iOS is a platform, and the 3DS is a toy. Toys are something we’re more likely to get bored with, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have their place. It may seem like a dismissive way to characterize a technically impressive new device that successfully brings a 3-D experience to the palm of your hand, but it’s exactly how prospective customers will think about the two when weighing a purchase decision.

That doesn’t mean Nintendo will lose out in every case. Some users are genuinely looking for a toy, not a platform. A parent, for example, might not want her children to have access (even restricted access) to a robust app ecosystem limited only by the decisions of the developers who program for it (and the policies guiding Apple’s app review process). That parent may also be reluctant to hand over an expensive and still quite fragile piece of electronic equipment to a child, which is what the iPhone and iPad are, despite offering competitive price points for their respective markets. Even the iPod touch, while more affordable than the 3DS depending on your storage option, can’t really be described as a “toy” with regard to its construction or design.

Nintendo promises apps, Netflix (s nflx) support and other additional features for the 3DS that could make it more like a platform in the future, but that doesn’t mean it’ll really become one. Nintendo of America President Reggie Fils-Aime made that clear when he recently went on record saying his company isn’t interested in working with amateur developers. It’s these devs that made iOS the market-changing platform that it has become, and inspired a legion of copycats.

Does that mean Nintendo isn’t “getting it?” Maybe, but even if it was, it wouldn’t change the fact that iOS has profoundly altered the gaming market, and Nintendo will benefit most from respecting those changes instead of trying to struggle against them. The introduction of 3D to a handheld console was a good start, as it clearly positions the 3DS in the realm of “fun.” No one’s going to want to run project reporting or invoicing apps on a screen that lets figures leap out at them.

The iPad 2 brings a lot of exciting new potential as an Apple gaming machine, thanks to its ability to output to a connected display in full 1080p HD. One title at least is already working to make this happen. But the iPad (and other iOS devices) are everything to everyone. They represent an evolution of the computing model that may replace a gaming device (among other things) for some users, but not for all, just like home computers never occluded the console gaming market. Nintendo may ultimately have to accept that Apple is better at reaching non-traditional gamers than it could ever be, but that doesn’t mean it’s curtains for the gaming company.

Is the 3DS an iPhone or iPad competitor? No, and Nintendo is generally doing a good job of not treating it as such (although promises of apps tend to confuse things). Categories are merely shifting, and there’s bound to be some jockeying for position, but in the end, both platforms and toys will be able to comfortably coexist.